I sit in the church pew, conscious that I look different. I resign myself to it. Again.
I thought I would leave that feeling behind in Costa Rica. One of the places I felt most like a foreigner was in church where I was the only blonde in a sea of black-haired people. I could see it in the hesitation before people shook my hand for the sign of peace, the question in their eyes as to whether I would be able to understand what “la paz” meant. I saw it when the priest made an extra effort to make me feel welcome in the church, something that I appreciated, but that also strengthened the knowledge that I would never be able to camouflage myself in a crowd, that I would always be immediately identified as different, other.
I never expected to feel that way at home. Over a lifetime, I have developed the cultural savvy to be able to stand out when I want to–and only when I want to. People don’t look at me twice in a crowd. In encounters with strangers, no one second-guesses the assumption I can speak English. And yet I found myself sitting in a church pew in Texas, feeling out-of-place.
Why did I feel out-of-place? Clothes.
Clothes, like I’m some kind of insecure barbie without any personality to stand on. But I had left the country in the peak of summer and missed all the fall fashions, so I wasn’t accustomed to the put-together outfits, perfectly done hair and subtly different makeup that makes up the new ephemeral norm. And sitting in an unfamiliar church full of strangers for an hour made it obvious I didn’t fit the pattern.
On the surface, I felt envious of the other girls’ clothes, because the thing is, I like the current fashions, for once. I like tribal print and vibrant colors and brown lace-up boots and leggings and loose shirts. Whether it’s because I’m a product of my culture or because my individuality is temporarily in unison with the mob, I think these clothes are pretty.
I felt guilty when I recognized the irony of being envious and materialistic in church, so I quickly quashed those thoughts, but it did nothing to make me feel less self-conscious. With a small percentage of my attention, I scanned the crowd, trying to will one girl into existence that didn’t look like she fit the mold, with no luck.
It took me a while to realize it wasn’t the fashion that was bothering me; it was the feeling I didn’t belong. I learned in Costa Rica that the funny thing about standing out is that everyone else seems the same. When I first arrived in Costa Rica, all I saw was people doing the same types of activities, greeting each other in the same way, engaging in a thousand everyday interactions that were different than those I was accustomed to, and yes, wearing the same general type of clothes. And they were all staring at me.
As I made friends and adjusted to the culture, my perspective shifted. On the bus, instead of looking at someone and seeing only a Tico, I saw a businessman or a mother or someone who was upset. I saw individuals blending in just enough to belong while still being themselves. And while I knew I still didn’t look like I belonged, I felt more like I belonged.
In that church in Texas, as I was observing the fashions, all I saw was a group of teens to thirties girls. I couldn’t tell you if the girl with the beautiful boots with woven textures up the side was blonde or brunette. I couldn’t tell you if the pretty girl in the red dress and denim cardigan liked to sing hymns or not. I couldn’t tell you if those two girls were different or the same person. The leap in fashion turned my own culture into an anonymous crowd. To some small degree I saw my own culture as foreign and apart from me.
I came to terms with standing out in Costa Rica, and I think when I stand out at home, it’s more of me feeling different than appearing different, but whatever the case, I’m learning not to undervalue blending in. The art of blending in is just as valuable as the courage to stand out.